Several months back, Exxon's public image took a well-deserved nosedive after an investigation by InsideClimate revealed that the oil company knew about links between fossil fuels and climate change forty years ago, before proceeding to bury and deny the evidence. But as another detailed InsideClimate investigation shows, Exxon wasn't alone. In fact, scientists from numerous American and multinational oil companies affiliated with the American Petroleum Institute (API) were very much aware of global warming in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And in news that will surprise exactly no one, the oil-friendly scientists decided to ignore and obfuscate the truth.
From 1979 to 1983, the API convened a task force of scientists — initially the CO2 and Climate Task Force, later the Climate and Energy Task Force — to monitor and share climate research. According to internal documents obtained by InsideClimate News and interviews with the task force's former director, that group included senior scientists from Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio, and Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oils (the predecessors to Chevron).
Exxon began conducting research on the climate warming impacts of CO2 in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s, the company funded world-class data gathering and modelling efforts. While the API's Climate Task Force was more of a discussion group than a research unit, it seems pretty clear that Exxon's research-based conclusions were not lost on them:
A background paper on CO2 informed API members in 1979 that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rising steadily, and it predicted when the first clear effects of climate change might be felt, according to a memo by an Exxon task force representative.
In addition, API task force members appeared open to the idea that the oil industry might have to shoulder some responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions by changing refining processes and developing fuels that emitted less carbon dioxide.
Minutes from an API meeting show the group even discussed "the technical implications of energy source changeover, research timing and requirements". In other words, they called for an energy revolution away from fossil fuels — in 1980! But as with Exxon, the forward-thinking elements of the task force would eventually be overridden:
Yet by the 1990s, it was clear that API had opted for a markedly different approach to the threat of climate change. It joined Exxon, other fossil fuel companies and major manufacturers in the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group whose objective was to derail international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions. In 1998, a year after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, API crafted a campaign to convince the American public and lawmakers that climate science was too tenuous for the United States to ratify the treaty.
The Paris Climate Agreement, which was adopted earlier this month, is the first global effort aimed at tackling carbon pollution and preventing dangerous climate change. Unfortunately, as many experts have pointed out, it would have been a great first step in 1995 — but it isn't nearly tough enough to get the job done today.
At this point, it's impossible to argue that the process wasn't hamstrung by the self-serving actions of an oil industry that knew it was in the wrong. The path from discovery and denial is too well-trodden.
Read the full investigation over at InsideClimate. Top image via AP.